Windy City Blues

In her fun very readable Windy City Blues (Berkley 2017; $16), Chicago author Renee Rosen again takes another slice of the city’s history and turns it into a compelling read.

Rosen, who plumbs Chicago’s history to write such books as Dollface, her novel about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and What the Lady Wants which recounts the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, says she and her publisher were racking their brains for her next book which encompassed Chicago history.

“She suggested the blues,” says Rosen, who didn’t have much interest in the subject.

But Rosen was game and started her typical uber-intensive research.

“When I discovered the Chess brothers, who founded Chess Records, I fell in love,” she says, noting that when researching she was surprised about how much she didn’t know about the subject despite her immersion in Chicago history for her previous books. “I thought this is a story.”

“As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago,” she says. “I also met with Willie Dixon’s grandson and with Chess family members.”

Combining fact and fiction, Rosen’s story follows heroine Leeba Groski, who struggling to fit in, has always found consolation in music. When her neighbor Leonard Chess offers her a job at his new Chicago Blues label, she sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in. Leeba starts by answering phones and filing but it soon becomes much more than that as she discovers her own talents as a song writer and also begins not only to fall in love with the music industry but also with Red Dupree, a black blues guitarist.

Windy City Blues was recently selected for Chicago’s One Book project, a program designed to engage diverse groups of Chicagoans around common themes. Rosen says she is very honored to be a recipient.

“I put my heart and soul into this book,” she says. “I think it’s a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the Civil Rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color along with the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.”

Florence LaRue: Grace in Your Second Act

              “People ask me when I’m going to retire,” says Florence LaRue, “and I say retire? I know I can’t do what I did when I was 70 but I do have the energy to keep moving and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

            LaRue, now 80-years-old, is certainly on the move. In the month or so between when her publicist contacted me about doing a story about her new book, “Grace in Your Second Act: A Guide to Aging Gracefully,” and the day LaRue called to chat, she’d been touring with the 5th Dimension, a music vocal group that LaRue has been performing with as the lead singer since 1966. Now more than half-a-century later, LaRue, a six-time GRAMMY-Award winner, she is the only remaining original member.

            LaRue never planned or even wanted to be a singer.

“There were two things I always wanted to do,” says LaRue who was born in a small town in Pennsylvania. “One was to teach—I had a wonderful 5th grade teacher, and the other was to act.”

Indeed, LaRue, a graduate of California State was just starting to teach when she fulfilled her duty as the 1962 winner of the Miss Bronze California by crowning her successor. When Jet Magazine photographer Lamonte McLemore had a different plan. His cousin, gospel singer Billy Davis Jr., and Ron Towson were putting together a group called the Versailles.

“He came up and said he wanted me to be in their group,” says LaRue who agreed to do it for fun just for a while.

The Versailles isn’t a group many people remember. But they do know The 5th Dimension which between 1967 and 1973 charted 20 Top 40 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 with songs such as “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Never My Love,” and “(Last Night) I didn’t Get to Sleep at All.” Their 1967 song “Up – Up and Away” and 1969’s “Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” both won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Aquarius achieved tremendous success, shooting up to number one where it stayed for six weeks, selling over a million copies in less than a month.

“I owe my career to winning that contest,” says LaRue. “Years later a man came up to me and said I know you don’t remember me, but I was one of the judges. All the other young ladies came out wearing their gowns and sang. But when you came out in a white suit with a white hat, holding the hatbox, singing “April in Paris” in French, Eartha Kitt turned and said to us, ‘There’s your winner.”

LaRue does some acting but never had the time to pursue it as a fulltime career. When I suggest that singing on stage is a form of acting, she quickly but sweetly corrects me.

“I have to feel what I’m singing,” she says. “There’s no acting to it. If I don’t feel it, I can’t do my best.”

Feeling it is also part of LaRue wrote “Grace in Your Second Act.”  She wants older women to embrace their lives as they grow older.

“Don’t regret growing older,” she says. “It’s a privilege denied to many.”

But her book is not only for those who are in their second act. The best way to prepare for the second act, she says, is by taking care of yourself during your first act.

It worries her that people don’t eat well, consume to much sugar, and don’t exercise. Before she called at 10 a.m., LaRue had already done her exercises and walked a mile to get ready for her day.

We end out phone call with LaRue taking down my address. She’s going to send me her recipe for chicken curry.

“It’s one of my favorites, I’m sure you’ll like it,” she tells me.

I’m sure I will.

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